Jean-Luc Nancy. Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body. Translated by Sarah Clift, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas. Perspectives in Continental Philosophy Series. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. ix + 118 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-2889-8; $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-2890-4.
Reviewed by Mitchell M. Harris (Department of English, Augustana College [Sioux Falls])
Published on H-German (June, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Scandal of Christ in Critical Theory
Back in 2004, in the Catholic intellectual journal First Things, Paul J. Griffiths attended to a growing trend in European continental philosophy: the turn to Christianity as a site of critical inquiry. At that time, Griffiths commented that this trend was led, in large part, by Marxian materialist thinkers such as Terry Eagleton, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek. As these thinkers readily admit, however, their interests in Christianity rest far from the purview of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, their interests in Christianity rest largely with the Apostle Paul, who, as Badiou claims, becomes the figure without which "the Christian message would remain ambiguous, with little to distinguish it from the overabundant prophetic and apocalyptic literature of the time." Or, in the words of Žižek, "there is no Christ outside Saint Paul." Thus, the historical Jesus is important to the Marxist materialist project only insofar as his death becomes the passing by which Paul can introduce the radical principle which states, according to Žižek, that "each individual has immediate access to universality (of nirvana, of the Holy Spirit, or, today, of human Rights and freedoms): I can participate in this universal dimension directly, irrespective of my special place within the global social order."
At the same time that these Marxist materialist thinkers were beginning to see Christianity as a site of philosophical reflection, poststructuralist and deconstructionist thinkers like Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida were also coming to this realization. If the deconstructionist project was, in large part, the result of an intense focus on linguistic philosophy, these thinkers seemed to suggest that the Judeo-Christian tradition also deserved its share of critical attention--in large part because of Saint Augustine's development of a theory of signs, but also because of the incarnational mysticism that surrounds the Johannine gospel's formulation of Jesus as the Word that "became flesh" (John 1:14). Whereas the Marxist materialist formulation of Christianity rests largely with Paul, the deconstructionist formulation rests largely with Jesus of Nazareth, God's logos, and this is also where Jean-Luc Nancy's working relationship with the Christian tradition operates.
Nancy begins Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body with a prologue that outlines the philosophical reach of his book and its methodology. Nancy will reflect upon the notion of the absent-presence/present-absence of Jesus in the Christian tradition, he suggests, through the meaning of Jesus' life as it is apparent in "the Christian and post-Christian iconography of both the East and the West" (p. 3), in particular the iconographic images of the untouchable resurrected Jesus, the Jesus who boldly declares to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John, "Noli me tangere" ("Do not touch me"). But the meaning of this iconography is available only by way of parable, which, as Nancy declares, "constitutes a mode of figuration by means of a story charged with representing a moral content" (p. 4). The gospels' representation of Jesus, however, problematizes an essentialist determination of the very meaning of parable because according to Nancy, Jesus' entire life "is a representation of the truth that he claims himself to be" (p. 4). It "is precisely the truth that appears in being represented" (p. 4). Thus, Nancy argues that in the gospels, "the logos is not distinct from the figure or the image, since its essential content consists precisely in the logos's figuring, presenting, and representing itself" (p. 4). Essentially, Jesus is immediately parabolic, even in his immanent material (that is, historical) existence. This is to say that there never was a time--never has been a time--in which Jesus was not absent-present/present-absent.
Nowhere is this more apparent to Nancy than in the Noli me tangere scene of the Gospel of John, because this scene "gives a particularly good example" of a "sudden appearance within which a vanishing is played out" (p. 11). Nancy is quick to concede that the very notion of not touching the body of Christ seemingly opposes the sacramental fabric of the Christian faith, a faith that he sees as having been "the invention of the religion of touch" (p. 14). Thus, he surmises that the command to not touch and the sacramental nature of Christianity must "be thought together, in a mode of oxymoron or paradox" (p. 15). For Nancy, the "auto-deconstruction" of the text under consideration subsequently reveals this oxymoron/paradox: the truth of Jesus' life is essentially parabolic: "Its being and its truth as arisen are in this slipping away, in this withdrawal that alone gives the measure of the touch in question: not touching this body, to touch on its eternity. Not coming into contact with its manifest presence, to accede to its real presence, which consists in its departure" (p. 15). John's Greek, Nancy contends, also accedes to this parabolic understanding of Jesus' present departure, for the verb haptein ("to touch") can also mean "to hold back, to stop" (p. 15). Thus, for Mary Magdalene to touch Jesus, to hold him back in this critical moment "would be to adhere to immediate presence, and just as this would be to believe in touching (to believe in the presence of the present), it would be to miss the departing according to which the touch and presence come to us" (p. 15). "Only thus," Nancy continues, "does the 'resurrection' find its nonreligious meaning" (p. 15).
And that--the finding of the gospels' nonreligious meaning--is the very heart of Nancy's deconstructive project, emptying Christianity of its naive theological content. For him, the death and resurrection of Jesus cannot result in the old and tired doctrine of atonement. Rather, "the dead body remains dead, and that is what creates the 'emptiness' of the tomb, but the body that theology will later call 'glorious' ... reveals that this emptiness is really the emptying out of presence" (p. 16). In turn, Nancy is free to declare that death is not "vanquished" in "the sense religion all too hastily wants to give this word" (p. 16). Instead, death is "immeasurably expanded, shielded from the limitation of being a mere demise. The empty tomb un-limits death in the departing of the dead" (p. 16). Through Nancy's project of deconstruction, Jesus' life is glorious only in that the absent-present/present-absent "resurrection" becomes "the glory at the heart of death: a dark glory, whose illumination merges with the darkness of the tomb" (p. 17). The rest of Nancy's monograph attempts to see the Noli me tangere scene, and its iconographic representations (from Albrecht Dürer's woodcut of the scene to Rembrandt van Rijn's Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb), in light of this deconstructed, nonreligious reading. His idealized "painter" actively puts "the truth of the 'resurrection' to work": he or she intensifies "the presence of an absence as absence" (p. 51). That Mary Magdalene is always present in this moment explains why Nancy sees her as the "saint par excellence" (p. 42). She alone "gives herself up to a presence that is only a departing, to a glory that is only darkness, to a scent that is only coldness" (p. 43).
In order to further explore the reach of Nancy's "deconstruction of Christianity" in Noli me tangere, the translators append two essays to the text: "Mary, Magdalene" and "In Heaven and on Earth." The former serves as an excellent segue to the latter, because it begins with the iconography of Mary Magdalene, which, once again, points to "the grace of giving oneself up, the grace of abandon" (p. 61). "In Heaven and on Earth" then moves from the iconography of the gospels to what one might rightly call a topography of the cosmos. This essay is a transcription of a lecture that Nancy delivered in the "Little Dialogues" series--a series that aims to awaken its child audience to pressing philosophical debates--at Montreuil's Center for the Dramatic Arts. Once again, Nancy's vision of an absent-presence/present-absence at the heart and soul of Christianity is fully visible in his discussion of the cosmos. The "religious idea of heaven [le ciel]," he suggests, designates a "place different from the world as a whole. But a place different from the world as a whole means a place that is different from all places. That, then, means a place that is not a place" (p. 75). In quick turn, he concludes "since being nowhere and everywhere means, strictly speaking, nothing when we are talking about the things of the world, this means that the heavenly or the divine designates something that is nothing" (p. 76).
Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body is surely a timely and important contribution to the current stream of philosophical interactions with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Nancy demonstrates, once again, why he remains one of today's most important and impressive voices in this conversation. Nonetheless, this and other expressions of a zealous commitment to the deconstructive process, to the nonreligious reading of Christianity, beg an important question that I think we must ask in earnest: why? Why do continental philosophers, from materialist Marxists to poststructuralist philosophers like Nancy, continue to return to Christianity only to strip it of its theological, religious, and sacred content? In particular, what is the value of a de-mythologized and de-sacralized Christianity for the deconstructionist project? If the deconstructed Jesus cannot save our souls, what is he saving? And why are we wasting our time thinking about him? The materialist Marxists have found their answers to such questions. Whether the deconstructionists can find one, however, still remains to be seen.
. Paul J. Griffiths, "Christ in Critical Theory," First Things 145 (2004): 46-55.
. Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 34.
. Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (New York: Verso, 2000), 2.
. Ibid., 120.
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Mitchell M. Harris. Review of Nancy, Jean-Luc, Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body.
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